The first View-Master in the late 1930s wasn’t meant to be children’s toy. A Portland, Oregon, organ-maker and photographer named William Gruber was fascinated with a Victorian optical device known as a stereoscope, which created an illusion of 3-D using two side-by-side photographs. Gruber had the idea to mass-produce a portable stereoscope, using new Kodachrome color film, which could be held in one’s hands.

While Gruber was touring the nearby attraction Oregon Caves National Park, he met Harold Graves, president of Sawyer’s Inc., a company that specialized in souvenir picture postcards. Graves asked Gruber why he was using two cameras strapped together, and so Gruber explained the invention he was working on. Graves said he’d love to help produce and sell this idea, but he could only offer Gruber a share of the profits.

Graves and Gruber debuted the View-Master to the public at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in New York, where it was sold as a souvenir of the event. Afterward, they sold the devices at specialty photography and stationery stores, and the reels depicted scenes from national parks like the Grand Canyon and other gorgeous landscapes around the United States. These early reels, which came in a gold envelope, are dark blue with a gold sticker and what appears to be hand-lettering. In 1941, more than 100,000 stores offered View-Masters.

When the United States entered World War II in 1942, the government commissioned millions of View-Master reels from Sawyer’s to teach servicemen how to identify airplanes and ships within shooting range. These reels tend to be tan with a blue stamp. Because paper was rationed during the war, these came in a variety of front-and-back paper combinations like tan with blue, tan with white, or marbleized.

Thanks to the publicity from the war effort, View-Master was so well known by the mid-'40s, the company didn’t have to advertise them. Before View-Master had a contract with Disney, Sawyer’s would re-create scenes from animated films like “Cinderella” and “Snow White” using 3-D clay tabletop models.

Then, in 1951, Sawyer’s bought out one of View-Master’s competitors, Tru-Vue, and gained the license to all of Walt Disney’s characters. After the agreement, View-Master could use cel-style drawings from the actual films. Suddenly, the device had tremendous kid appeal, and movies and TV characters became a staple of the View-Master line. “Captain Kangaroo,” “Pinky Lee,” the original “Mouseketeers,” Roy Rogers, Flipper, and The Monkees have all been recorded on these reels.

In 1955, View-Master introduced three-reel packets, which often came with storybooks, and began phasing single reels out. That same year, Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California...

During the '50s, when 3-D movies were all the rage, View-Masters would be placed in movie-theater lobbies, loaded with preview reels of upcoming features. Moviegoers would look through the viewers to get a taste of 3-D films like “House of Wax” with Vincent Price, “They Called Him Hondo,” with John Wayne, and “It Came From Outer Space.” Only 29 films were previewed this way, and so these reels are now hot items for collectors. A “House of Wax” reel recently sold for more than $300.

Sawyer’s, View-Master’s parent company, was purchased by General Aniline and Film Corporation, or G.A.F., in 1966. G.A.F. pushed through several View-Master innovations, including the “talking” View-Master and View-Master projectors. The 1969 Apollo moon landing was also depicted in a View-Master reel.

Often failed TV shows would end up as View-Master reels, and these include “The Smith Family” starring Henry Fonda, “Korg 70,000 B.C.,” "Apple’s Way,” “Julia,” and “Isis.” But the cult TV shows of the '60s like “Lost in Space, “The Munsters,” and “The Addams Family” are particularly popular with collectors now.

The View-Master dipped in popularity in the '70s, and around 1980, Arnold Thaler acquired the rights to View-Master, creating the View-Master International company. Later, he purchased the Ideal Toy Company and merged View-Master into that toy line. Tyco Toys purchased the company in 1989, and in 1997, Tyco was swallowed up by Mattel, which branded the View-Master under Fisher-Price. In 1999, the View-Master was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame.

At this point, more than 1.5 billion View-Master reels have been produced. The delightful thing about View-Master is that the size and shape of the reels have never changed, nor has the basic function of the viewer. Each paper reel has 14 slides that create seven images, so any reel in decent condition, no matter how old it is, can be viewed through any View-Master.

Reels made between 1960 and 1963 often have a “blistering” or “bubbling” effect on the paper that occurred in manufacturing. However, the real concern for collectors is if the film is damaged or missing, which can render a reel worthless.

Most View-Masters viewers are remarkably common, and so only the earliest models, like Model A and Model B, have any value on the market. The blue-and-brown Model Bs are particularly scarce. Model D is coveted because it’s the only viewer in the line with a focusing feature. The black Bakelite Model C, however, has proven indestructible, and therefore, is easy to find.

Some collectors focus exclusively on View-Master products. But they often themselves in fierce competition with character collectors who snatch up anything related to Mickey Mouse, Barbie, Batman, or so on.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

20th Century Stereo Viewers

20th Century Stereo Viewers

Remember the View-Master you had as a kid? Check out all the hundreds of cool-looking variations you never knew exi… [read review or visit site]

View-Master Resource

View-Master Resource

While many people think of View-Masters as toys, Eddie Bowers, who runs View-Master Resource, clearly considers the… [read review or visit site]

Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood

Embrace your inner child on this website from the Victoria and Albert Museum, filled with high-quality images and i… [read review or visit site]

Discussion Forums

Most watched eBay auctions    

Victorian Stereo Viewer ' The Stereoscope For The People' +3d Stereoscopic ViewsChinese Art In 3 D Color By Garner Medley 4 Volumes 180 Reels +viewmaster 1969Huge Lot 3 Sawyer's View-master Viewers Bakelite - Round, Lighted, & 100 Reels !Vintage Viewmaster With Slides Discs Job Lot Royalty Nature GeographicVintage Gaf View Master In Box With Stereo Reels 6 Vintage Gaf Viewmaster Reels 1 Sealed 5 Open Land Lost Korg Ufo Apes City Sea5 Vintage Viewmaster Reels 4 Gaf 1 Sawyer Batman Voyage Bottom Sea Lost In Space 6 Vintage Gaf Viewmaster Reels 3 Sealed 3 Opened Laugh-in Mission Impossible +Sawyers Gaf View Master Stereo Picture Reels Expo 67 Canada Ireland Pikes PeakHc White Perfecscope Stereoscope Stereo ViewerAntique Stereoscope Stereo Viewer 28 Cards Included! Great Collectible!View Master Reels Set 1968 Dogpatch Usa Marble Falls Arkansas ,no.a 442,sweetUnderwood & Underwood Perfecscope Stereoscope Stereo ViewerRare View-master Dealer Display Stand For Model C Viewer Light Attachment œView Master Lot Disney Dukes Hazard Travel Non Sorted Flintstones Cedar PointVintage Monkees View Master 3 Reels 1967 Gaf Corp Last Wheelbarrow To PokeyvilleView-master 3-dimension Focusing Viewer Model D 358915Black Sawyer 3-d View-master, Model D Great Condition! Clean! Needs BulbRare 25 Gaf Viewmaster View Master Reels Stereo Picture Estate Find Must See!Vintage 60s Gaf View Master With Bakelite Case Plus 63 ReelsViewmaster Reel LotSawyer Viewmaster Model D; Lighted, Focusing. Very Nice ConditionVintage Kodak Kodaslide Stereo Viewer Ii - No. 162 In Original Box Bakelite Vintage Viewmaster Discs. 100 Plus Job Lot. Mostly Countries.leaflets EtcVintage Sawyer's Stereo Focusing View-master Viewer In Original Box & Reels !!!!View-master 3 Reel Set Classical Greece C 003e Belgium Issue Complete!Vintage 1960's View Master Tested Works Great Nice CollectibleVintage Viewmaster Projedtor In Box With Screen 46 Reels Disney Wizard Of OzSawyer’s View-master Stereoscope + View-master Gaf + 30 Plus Picture ReelsViewmaster A673 A674 A675 A676 New York Worlds Fair 1964-1965 4 Sets Of 3 ReelsVintage View Master Stereo Viewer With Case And Slides Sword And The Stone Etc.Vintage Michael Jackson "thriller" 3d Viewmaster Gift Set NibSawyer Viewmaster Lot W/ Reels Including Late 1904's-1950's Little Black Sambo..View Master Reels Lot Blue Viewmasdter - 50+ Reels Lud60's View-master Television Series Dark Shadows Barnabas Collins & Lost In SpaceVintage Sawyer View Master With 83 SlidesJerusalem And The Holy Week Jordan Gaf Viewmaster Packet C-831-e~huge Lot Of Viewmaster Stuff In Collectors Case~View-master In Original Box16 Assorted Viewmaster Reels - Winnie The Pooh, Casper, Sesame Street & More!Gaf View- Master Stereo Picture Slides Snoopy And The Red Baron And PeanutsView-master 3 Reel Set Islands Of Greece B 207 Complete!Rare Vintage Gaf View-master Red & White Storage Box Mannix View Master Packet Viewmaster Mint In Package Bb450 1974New 1978 Superman The Movie Gaf View Master Reel Set #j78 Factory SealedLot Of View-master Reel Packets Reels Viewmaster Gaf And SawyersHallmark Keepsake Ornament 2008 Mattel View-master, In BoxVintage 1974 View-master Charlie Brown Theatre With Extras 21 Reels, 2 ViewerLot Of 3 Vintage View-master Sawyer's Model G With Box, 3d, 1951 Reel ListVintage Gaf View-master Gift Pak Includes 10 Reels! Disney! Early 70's.View-master Bonanza Huge Lot Of Vintage View Master Viewers & 80+ ReelsView-master 3 Reel Set Athens Greece B 206 Complete! SawyersVintage, Early 1930s? 1940s? View Master Model "a" Black Viewer In Original BoxVintage View-master Junior Projector 115 V. Ac Dc Sawyer's Oregon UsaViewmaster 4 Sets Of 3-reel Cartoon Story PacketsToy Lot;batman Fig,puzzle,pez,necklace;he-man View Master Reels;pokemon PokedexVintage Sawyer Viewmaster Lot -140+ Reels, Deluxe Projector And Old ViewerVintage View Master Bakelite 3d Viewer Model E 1950's W 3 Reels 1957-58 Sawyer's15 Rare Early Mint Vintage View-master Reels Boulder Dam Colorado Nevada **vintage Viewmaster Reel Storage Cases: 2 Cases** Rare Vintage Find!